Appropriators miss deadline, hope to OK budget by Halloween

Appropriators, late again in passing a federal budget by the start of the fiscal year, are now eyeing an end-of-October deadline.

Whether the appropriation bills move as quickly as Democrats hope depends on the Senate. While the House has passed all 12 spending bills, the Senate has passed just six.

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Appropriators in the upper chamber voiced skepticism over whether the Halloween deadline would be met.

“It sort of looks like it’s got to be done within the next 30 days or there’s another continuing resolution,” said Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.). “I don’t know if that’s very likely.”

Progress on appropriations measures will likely be slowed by the Democrats’ leading priority, a healthcare reform bill. The Senate Finance Committee is expected to report out its healthcare legislation within days, setting the stage for a much-anticipated floor debate that could drag out for weeks. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) this week canceled a scheduled Columbus Day recess so the Senate would have enough time for the healthcare bill.

Democratic appropriators said that wrapping up the bills before month’s end would help prevent the problems of the past two years, when Congress resorted to packaging several bills together in an omnibus. The bills for 2008 weren’t finished until December 2007, nearly three months into the fiscal year. The 2009 bills weren’t finished until March, when almost half of the fiscal year was over.

When the spending bills are delayed, “there’s a lack of transparency, a lack of governance, a lack of oversight, a lack of being able to upgrade things, get rid of things that are stupid and changing them,” said Rep. Sam Farr (D-Calif.), a House appropriator.

House Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) and Senate Appropriations Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) aimed to get all 12 appropriations bills to the president for his signature before the end of the fiscal year, a feat that has eluded Congress since 1994.

But their self-imposed deadline passed Wednesday with only the smallest of the 12 bills, the $4.7 billion legislative branch spending measure, signed into law. To avoid a government shutdown, Congress has cleared a continuing resolution so federal operations could continue at 2009 fiscal year levels. The stopgap spending measure expires Oct. 31.

Appropriators noted that the budget process started late this year because the White House budget proposal arrived in May. Most presidents unveil their budgets in February, while President Barack Obama, inaugurated in January, was able to release only a bare-bones budget framework. The process also slowed in the Senate because of a packed agenda this summer that revolved around a Supreme Court nomination and the healthcare reform debate.

Fiscally conservative Republicans have also slowed the bills’ progress, offering numerous floor amendments to the appropriations measures in an effort to strip out earmarks and highlight spending increases.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (Vt.), the third-most senior Democratic appropriator, noted that all GOP senators, in a March letter to Senate Democratic leaders, voiced support for passing the bills quickly. But Leahy, asked whether he thought the bills could be finished in just four weeks, said, “I hope so.”

Appropriators aren’t likely to get much help in their push from Obama.

Obama hasn’t delved much into the appropriations process, deferring to powerful Democrats on Capitol Hill. The Obama administration has endorsed each of the spending bills that House and Senate appropriators have considered. But lawmakers said they haven’t felt much pressure from administration officials to get the bills done.

Farr said that the White House’s role in the budget process has been “advisory.”

“The president proposed to us his budget in February,” he added. “It’s the duty of appropriators and others in Congress to dispose.”

The Democrat-led Congress had clashed in the past two years with President George W. Bush, who refused the Democrats’ bills because they called for spending increases and restrictions on military operations in Iraq he didn’t want. Last year, Democrats, instead of acceding to Bush’s demands, waited until he was out of office to pass most of the bills. The result was a $410 billion omnibus package in March that included eight of the 12 spending measures.

Republicans blasted the package because Democratic leaders largely wrote it on their own, preventing appropriators from offering amendments to it at the committee level. Fiscal conservatives criticized the rushed nature of the bill, saying it led to the passage of nearly 9,000 earmarks that totaled $7.7 billion.

Passing the bills without resorting to an omnibus just weeks into the fiscal year would be a “significant achievement,” said Keith Kennedy, a former aide to GOP appropriators.

By passing the bills through “regular order” instead of using omnibuses, individual senators get to shape the bills “and not be presented with a tall pile of language worked out behind closed doors without their input,” said Kennedy, now the head of Baker Donelson’s federal fiscal public policy group.

But how quickly the bills pass will depend on the White House and Democrats’ other top priorities, healthcare and financial regulatory reform, a climate change bill and the war in Afghanistan.

“At some point, of course, proper time and attention needs to be paid on those things,” Kennedy said. “In the interim, they can get some of these appropriations bills done.”